Pioneering powderhound passes away
Ryan Summerlin January 31, 2007
SILVERTON – In her own way, one-time Aspen ski instructor Dolores LaChapelle may have been one of the original ski bums. LaChapelle spent her life among the snows of the West, from Banff to Aspen, and from Alta to her final decades in Silverton, where she died recently at the age of 82.
But to call her a ski bum – a term actually of admiration, not condescension – does not fully convey what she was about. She was a thinker and a writer and a stirrer of the pot.
“She moved easily in a world of big ideas, just as she skied fearlessly in deep powder snow, letting the flow take her down the mountain. Leaving us to follow in her tracks,” wrote one of her friends, Art Goodtimes, in The Telluride Watch.
She was born in Louisville, Ky., but grew up in Denver, learning to ski in the very first days of mechanized skiing, when rope tows and then chairlifts were erected along the Continental Divide. After World War II and graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Denver, she taught skiing at Aspen and then, as wife of avalanche and snow science pioneer Ed LaChapelle, skied at Alta.
Dolores was credited with the first ski ascents of chisel-shaped, glacier-covered Mt. Columbia, the second highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, and Snow Dome, the hydrographic apex of the continent. Both are located in Jasper National Park, on the Alberta-British Columbia border.
“I wish you could have been with her on the morning after a new powder snowfall as she was hurrying out the door of our home in Alta to embrace the day,” said her son, David, writing in the Silverton Standard. “She had little use for niceties as a most important appointment was to be kept: the exhilaration and free fall of dancing with millions of ice crystals under the sun in the mountains.”
He added: “This embrace of motion, mountain and life swept my mother into a deep affirmation of the world of the spirit, obvious in her delight and excitement at being able to once again turn her skis down the mountain and let go.”
Moving to Silverton, by herself, she made a living writing books – publishing seven from 1969 to 1996. She wrote often of the connection between the external and internal landscapes linked in powder skiing.
“Beyond the scholar, writer, and intellectual was a woman who was passionate about wanting others to experience the connection she felt,” said her son. “This was her service, which she performed every day of her life. She was not always gentle in this service, but she was always fierce with her love, for she had little time for the ways in which we humans conspire to ignore the pulse of life as it flows through the earth, the trees, the sky and the beating of our hearts.”
Backcountry skier Missy Votel in 2002 made a pilgrimage to visit LaChapelle. Writing in the Durango Telegraph, she explained why: “In certain circles, ‘Deep Powder Snow,’ by Dolores LaChapelle, had become a cult classic. If I truly strived to understand snow, in all its forms and functions, I was told, I had to read it. Soon the small paperback became tattered and worn from my repeated visits. “Not only was LaChapelle a pioneering female backcountry skier, but she did it with grace and fluidity that only comes from surrendering oneself completely to the mountain. All on skies not much more technical than your average barrel slat.”
Added Votel: “Her words stuck with me over the years, bringing comfort and courage in conditions thick and thin, steep and deep.”
In her later years, LaChapelle became an advocate of deep ecology, a philosophical movement, and founded the Way of the Mountain Learning Center. She also taught tai chi. As she aged, her hip gave out, and then the replacement was also giving out. She also suffered heart problems, but chose not to move to a lower altitude, where her life might have been prolonged.
“She stayed because she chose to live out her life force in a hymn to the mountains which had so inspired her throughout her life,” said her son David.
An ex-Silverton resident, Don Bachman, now of Bozeman, Mont., remembers her this way: “The San Juans were her habitat; where she chose to live and learn from and give to. She taught us to look at the whole from within; not as spectators. Her life was well lived and there is a hole in the heart of the mountain; it will heal but not before we feel the emptiness.”